When the original Lara Croft: Tomb Raider came to the big screen in 2001, it boasted Angelina Jolie in the starring role—British heiress, adventurer, treasure hunter, and (to no one’s surprise) fanboy sex object. Based on the popular video game series, the movie came loaded with expectations. Amongst these expectations were everything from catchphrases and signature moves Lara should use, to weaponry, manner of dress, and body type. Fans having expectations when their favorite material is adapted to the big screen is nothing new, but when those expectations lead to—or simply perpetuate—society’s unhealthy tendency to confound female sexuality with strength, as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider does, then those expectations deserve to be subverted. More so now than ever.
We live in an overly sexed-up world. I know I risk sounding puritanical by saying that, but the #metoo movement should have communicated to us, if nothing else, that we have a serious problem with sex in this country, and that there is a tangible disconnect between how men and women view the subject. Women are often told that our sexuality is both strength and power. Where we are (usually) physically weaker than men, we can control them through sexual manipulation. In video games and action movies—both incredibly male-dominated fields—this mentality translates into sexed-up female action heroes who either dress like dominatrixes or use their wiles as often as their fists to get the job done.
The manner in which our stories are delivered to us means a great deal, especially in regard to messages about gender expectations. For a long time, the message out of Hollywood has been that to be tough and female is to also be hypersexual. We are invited to view Lara Croft this way from the opening scenes of Jolie’s portrayal of her in the 2001 Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. She wears skin-tight short shorts and gun holsters around her bare thighs while staving off a killer battle robot. From there, she proceeds directly into a steamy shower, where we’re treated to several different angles of her washing, before she gets out and drops the towel, revealing ample sideboob while she declares to her butler (who is watching) that she is not a lady.
Things are also a little, how shall we say, out of proportion, for Jolie’s Croft. Probably the most controversial decision made for her character in the 2001 version of the film may also be the most telling: the team behind the film padded Jolie’s bra to increase her breast size to a 36D (still smaller than the video game Lara Croft, who is a 36DD). Not only this, but her breasts take center stage—on the promotional poster for the film, in many of the choice camera shots throughout the movie, and in some scenes where other characters are wearing layers of clothing (yet she, mysteriously, is not).We deserve portrayals of action heroes who stand on equal ground with the best male action heroes—not tethered to objectifications of our sexual prowess, but free to examine the beauty that makes women unique as fighters.
These choices were, according to Jolie, what the video game devotees wanted. Jolie stated that she was “extremely hesitant” to wear the short shorts, but gave in because she wanted to make the fans happy. The short shorts, the shower scene, the fixation on the large breasts—all things from the Tomb Raider video games, and all expectations of the titular character for the movie adaptation. Jolie’s Lara Croft is bound by her sexuality and fan expectations that she would look and dress a certain way. Director Simon West’s choice to shoot and include these scenes objectifies her in a way male action heroes are often not objectified. The 2003 sequel eases up on some of these issues, but is still quite problematic, and the message remains the same: to be strong and female, you must be sexy.
But what if there was another way? What if, like men, women could be action heroes without our physical prowess being tethered to our sexual prowess?
Enter 2018’s Tomb Raider. Directed by Roar Uthaug and starring Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft, the reboot is a true origin story, opening, like the 2001 version, with a fight scene. But unlike the 2001 version, Vikander’s Lara fights another woman (not a robot) in a boxing ring, and she’s getting her butt handed to her. From the opening scene, we’re invited to view a broken Lara Croft—not a sexual object. Working as a bike delivery messenger in East London because she refuses to sign the papers to inherit her vast wealth and estate, Vikander’s Lara isn’t sultry or confident or “together,” and she so frequently goes by her father’s childhood nickname for her in the film that it’s difficult to think of her in any sexual manner at all. “Sprout” isn’t terribly sexy.
Nobody with eyes would deny Alicia Vikander is a beautiful woman, and if Uthaug had wanted to, he could have worked the sexual angle in not only the script, but costume design and his shot choices, as well. But he never does. Although Vikander’s bra is also padded, you would never guess it from watching her on screen due to the normalcy of her clothing. In the 2001 version, Jolie’s strength is subverted by director West’s focus on her sexuality. Camera shots resting overly long on her ample bosom or her sultry gaze tie her body as a sexual object always to her status as action hero. By contrast, in this year’s Tomb Raider, the camera never lingers on Vikander’s breasts, legs, rear—on any part of her that could be considered sexually objectifying in any way, which in turn never encourages the audience to objectify her, either. Instead, when the camera does close in on her body, shots are focused on her well-muscled back and arms, showcasing the months of hard work Vikander put into training for the role.
Alicia Vikander brings more than just a de-objectification to Lara Croft, though, she brings femininity back to the female action hero, showing that hypersexuality isn’t what makes a female action hero feminine. It’s a difficult thing to say for sure what it is that this means, but as a woman, I can definitely say that I know it when I see it. I saw it last year in 2017’s Wonder Woman when Diana cooed over the baby on the street of London, when she saw the hurting people in the trenches and decided to fight for them when no one else would, and when she offered undeserved mercy to her enemy at the end of the film. In addition to some indefinable things, it’s a layer of compassion, an acknowledgment that women are often physically weaker than men and we have to use our bodies differently in a fight, it’s a level of feeling that says it’s okay to cry if you need to cry.
Does that sound weak? I don’t mean for it to. In some ways it’s much easier to argue the inverse. To point to Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft and just say the hypersexualized, just-as-tough-as-a-man action hero is not it, but when she drops her towel in front of her butler and declares she’s not a lady, she loses relatability to a viewer like me who would never drop my towel in front of a man who is not my husband. When she beats up a man twice her size in a fist fight, my disbelief is not suspended, because no matter how many boxing classes a woman takes, in a fair fight between a woman and a much larger man, a woman is probably losing that match.
But when Alicia Vikander’s Lara Croft gets duped and robbed by a bunch of street teens because she’s naive, I nod, because I can see myself in that same scenario. When she plummets through a tree canopy and impales herself on a stick and actually starts crying, I almost started crying—when was the last time I saw that sort of vulnerability out of a female action hero? When she’s fighting hand-to-hand with a man twice her size, she is visibly terrified for her life and uses his size against him to win the fight. That is something I can believe.
I have no doubt in the next Tomb Raider movie, we’ll see a much more confident Lara Croft, but I hope they stay in the vein set out by this year’s reboot. It’s not that sexuality is bad, and certainly not that differences in sexuality between men and women are bad. But the notion that female strength comes from their sexuality is a notion that leads to objectification. In short, it’s a notion that needs to die. Movies like 2017’s Wonder Woman and 2018’s Tomb Raider are ushering in this change and a new era of female action heroes who are strong in the unique way that women are strong. Both men and women are made in God’s image and as such, the stories told about women should be just as good, beautiful, and true as the stories told about men. We deserve portrayals of action heroes who stand on equal ground with the best male action heroes—not tethered to objectifications of our sexual prowess, but free to examine the beauty that makes women unique as fighters.